Ransom E. Olds is most commonly known as the namesake of the Oldsmobile brand, but did you also know that he was the founder of REO Speed Wagon? No, not the band, the actual vehicle, produced by REO Motor Car Company.
The Early Days of Ransom E. Olds
Ransom Eli Olds was born on June 3, 1864 in Geneva, Ohio to Pliny Fisk Olds and his wife, Sarah Whipple Olds.
When Olds was a young boy, his family relocated to Lansing, Michigan. His father, a blacksmith, pattern maker, and later shop owner, opened a forge there under the name P.F. Olds and Son. Surrounded by machine parts and equipment, Ransom Olds spent his childhood tinkering with parts and pieces he found.
According to Olds himself, he built his first car equipped with a steam engine in 1894, followed by a gasoline-powered version in 1896. If this is true, then the birthplace of the modern car is actually Lansing, not Detroit.
The Birth of the Olds Motor Vehicle Company
In 1897, Ransom E. Olds teamed up with Edward W. Sparrow to create the Olds Motor Vehicle Company, under which he planned to design and manufacture his own vehicles.
This plan changed slightly in 1899, when local copper and lumbar big wig Samuel L. Smith purchased the company and moved it to Detroit. The business was renamed “Olds Motor Works,” and Ransom E. Olds was made Vice President and General Manager of his own automobile company.
Still, Olds managed to design 11 prototype automobiles by 1901, including models with steam engines, electric, and gasoline engines to cover the full range of products in the auto industry at the time. Remember, this was 1901, and the American automobile manufacturers weren’t entirely certain what direction this whole “car” thing was going to take yet.
The Oldsmobile Curved Dash Runabout
The Olds factory burnt to the ground in 1901. According to legend, the only prototype to survive the fire was the Oldsmobile Curved Dash Runabout, but many historians find that a bit suspicious, since Olds had been heavily marketing the Runabout for several months prior to the fire. But, who are we to question history?
The facts are that the curved dash Oldsmobile changed a lot about American construction and the automobile industry as a whole. This was the first low-priced, first mass production “horseless carriage” in the United States. Six hundred models were sold in the first year of production, with that number jumping to 3,000 in 1902. In 1904, over 4,000 Oldsmobiles were sold.
This was also the first instance of production via the stationary assembly line method, which was patented by Olds in 1901.
Let’s pause for a little clarification: Henry Ford is thought of as the inventor of assembly line production, but he actually used the moving assembly line method. Basically, Ford put the assembly line on a conveyor belt so that the products moved along the line by themselves. It’s a step up, we’ll give him that. But, the true inventor of the stationary assembly line is none other than Ransom E. Olds.
Moving on to the R.E. Olds Motor Car Company
In a move that had to have been inspired by some seriously juicy drama between Ransom E. Olds and Samuel L. Smith’s son, Frederic, Olds was demoted from Olds Motor Works, and left to form R.E. Olds Motor Car Company. He very soon had to change the name to the REO Motor Car Company to avoid litigation from Olds Motor Works. The lesson here is to not use your own name to found multiple car manufacturing companies in the same era and the same state.
REO did quite well for a time, but by 1910, they needed a new direction. The wave of the future, it was decided, was trucks. The REO Speed Wagon hit the streets in 1915. Today, we know the Speed Wagon by its modern name: the pickup truck.
Ransom Olds officially retired in 1925, returned briefly in 1933, and resigned again in 1934, never to return to the automobile industry again. Instead, he focused his energy into the lawnmower division of the REO Motor Car Company.
General Motors bought the original Olds Motor Works, and continued production of Oldsmobiles until 2004.
So, in summary, the first gasoline automobile was invented in Lansing. Ransom E. Olds invented the assembly line. The Oldsmobile Curved Dash Runabout was the first mass production automobile in the United States.
Now go forth, and conquer trivia night!